Ronan O’Gara far from the first Corkman to make his mark in Parisian rugby

Ronan O’Gara isn’t the first Corkman to make waves in Parisian rugby.

The Munster and Ireland icon’s Racing 92 club now face amalgamation with the other powerhouse in the French capital, Stade Francais — who featured a Leesider in their playing ranks before the First World War broke out.

John James Kelly pops up in team photographs with Stade Francais going back as far as 1913, but how did a Leesider end up playing rugby in Paris over a century ago?

Michael Holland, university curator at University College Cork, was asked by Willie Weir of UCC sport to do some digging into Kelly’s background.

He came up with some surprising results.

“I wasn’t able to establish where Kelly learned his rugby,” says Holland.

“He doesn’t appear to have gone to UCC, though that’s not definitive, there could be some more work to be done there.

“I did find a JJ Kelly as a member of Wanderers, on that club’s World War One Roll of Honour. Casualty records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission exist for a Captain John James Kelly, which gave his address in Cork — 151 Sunday’s Well, which could also be Sunday’s Well Road and Sunday’s Well Avenue, as the property is on both. His father was a retired RIC sergeant and his mother was still living in the family home in the 40s.”

There were more details. Though many of the World War One records in London didn’t survive the Blitz, Holland was still able to find out that Kelly’s job was listed as ‘chief sub-editor for the Continental Daily Mail’ while he lived in Paris, which would obviously facilitate his playing with a local side...

“There are good photographs of him on the Stade Francais website, team photographs and so on,” says Holland. “All the details seem to line up. One source does seem to confirm another.”

One less reliable source offers a tantalising glimpse of Kelly’s life on the front line, one in keeping with his background in journalism.

“There’s some suggestion that he had a camera with him in the trenches, so there may be a photographic record somewhere of him and his comrades.

“The Wanderers link I found particularly interesting because you could speculate that he was perhaps working for a newspaper in Dublin and that that led to working London, maybe, for the Daily Mail.

“Otherwise, how does a guy from Cork end up as chief sub-editor for the Continental Daily Mail in Paris?”

It didn’t end well for Kelly, unfortunately, as one might guess from his inclusion in a war graves database.

“He joined the Leinster Regiment apparently as a private soldier,” says Holland.

“He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and eventually became a captain and company commander, and he was killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, 100 years ago.”


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